137K grant to boost student portfolio plan

VERGENNES — Vergennes Union High School has won a $137,700 grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to further the school’s effort to require students to demonstrate proficiency in self-designed portfolios before graduation.
VUHS hopes to switch to “Performance-Based Graduation Requirements” (PBGRs) by 2016, according to its grant application to the foundation.
The VUHS grant was one of seven that the foundation announced this week for organizations, schools, and districts throughout New England, and the only one that went to a Vermont school.
According to a foundation press release, “the grants were issued through NMEF’s Research and Development Initiative with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.”
NMEF backs what it calls “proficiency-based pathways” that “enable students to engage in learning experiences where they can demonstrate mastery of content and skill and earn credit toward a diploma, credential or other meaningful marker.”
VUHS Co-Principal Ed Webbley said the school’s proposed PBGR system that the grant will support will require students to do more than attend classes.
“Basically, we are trying to move away from seat time as the measure of achievement … and toward a portfolio presented as a senior that proves that the student can perform the skills we as a community find vital to that student’s success,” Webbley said.
At the same time, VUHS administrators and the teachers involved in the project believe students will not only benefit, but also appreciate having a greater role in their education.
VUHS Spanish teacher and Rowland Fellow Kristine Kirkaldy, with input from several other VUHS teachers and Addison Northwest Supervisory Union curriculum coordinator Carol Spencer, wrote the successful grant application to NMEF.
She said students should get more out of their VUHS experience by working on portfolios during their careers.
“PBGRs will give our students an active voice in how they demonstrate their learning, and we will be engaging our students more deeply in their own education,” Kirkaldy said.
Kirkaldy’s Rowland Fellowship has focused on the PBGR effort, and she has also been working with the teacher committee that has been charged with moving the project forward.
Almost all of the grant money will technically be used for professional development, she said, but more simply it will give VUHS teachers the opportunity to learn about, understand the benefits of, and put into place what she called the PBGR system.
“In the proposal I believe I referred to this grant as allowing us to literally buy time — time to work together and learn together,” she said. “We need the time to sit down together and have the hard conversations about what we must give up, what we must take on, and what is gained in that process.”
NMEF grant amounts in 2011 ranged from $74,000 to $185,000. Specific amounts and brief descriptions of each recipient’s grant-related work are available on the NMEF website (www.nmefdn.org).
Webbley said Rowland and NMEF grants have almost entirely funded PBGR efforts at VUHS.
“Kristine and Carol Spencer have proven adept at writing grant and fellowship proposals,” Webbley said. “The trick is to put our unique vision into the language of education-speak without sacrificing the nuances. We have done this well.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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